Salman Khan, founder of Khan Academy, is a genuine big thinker. Since tutoring a young cousin in Mathematics in 2004, communicating by phone and an interactive notepad, he has gone on to establish Khan Academy.com in 2006 and has now produced an earth-shaking book, The One World Schoolhouse: Education Reimagined (October 2012). His mission is, and has been, deceptively simple: to “provide a free, world-class education for anyone, anywhere.” (p. 5)
The Khan Academy is an amazing 21st century success story. It began in a single room in his home in 2006 with a PC, $20 of screen capture software, and an $80 pen tablet all employed to write equations and draw graphs, usually shakily, using a free program called Microsoft Paint. Besides the videos, Sal only had “quizzing software ” running on his $50-a-month web host. The faculty, engineering team, support staff, and administration was shockingly small — consisting of only him. He spent his early days simply talking into a computer monitor and dreaming up plans for expansion.
Today Khan Academy, like a 21st century McDonald’s, claims to have provided 227,776,564 lessons to students of any and all ages. His individual, self-paced online tutorials number more than 3,000 little instructional videos on the You Tube channel covering a dizzying array of lessons from basic arithmetic to advanced science, economics, and United States history. It’s far and away the most used library of educational videos on the web attracting over 4.2 million unique students per month. He freely admits that You Tube has made him a celebrity star all over the United States and far beyond. He has been profiled in Time Magazine and his TED Talk has been hailed as one of the most influential, rivaling that of Sir Ken Robinson.
Most established North American educators find Sal Khan and the Khan Academy absolutely frightening. After Sal Khan was embraced by Bill Gates as America’s master teacher, critics emerged in an attempt to discredit Khan and his whole methodology. Most of the academic snipers were quick to point out that Khan was “a former hedge fund analyst” with passing reference to his degrees from MIT and Harvard University. The Washington Post’s Valerie Strauss joined in, providing a platform on The Answer Sheet for critics determined to separate “the hype from the reality.”
When asked why millions of students use his instructional videos but so many traditional teachers shun Khan Academy, Sal was brutally frank: “It’d piss me off ,too, if I had been teaching for 30 years and suddenly this ex-hedge-fund guy is hailed as the world’s teacher.” But that’s only half the reason. After viewing a few of his You Tube tutorials, it becomes abundantly clear that Sal Khan is a master at didactic instruction and a real threat to the status quo as represented by student-centred, soft-on content pedagogues. He sets out in each video to actually “teach” something rather than to “facilitate” interaction with others. In that sense, he is a huge threat to the apostles of John Dewey and Jean Piaget still ensconced in most North American education schools and provincial school bureaucracies.
Sal Khan’s first book is full of little surprises. He is definitely out to fix what ails North American public education systems. Like his little videos, the book also attempts to explain what needs to change to instill the joy of learning, the thrill of discovery, and the beauty of math and science in today’s students. “What I didn’t want, ” he writes, “was the dreary process that sometimes went on in classrooms — rote memorization and plug-in formulas — aimed at nothing more lasting than a good grade on the next exam.” That is precisely why he recommends using his videos as preparation for more in-depth classroom inquiry, discussion, and problem-solving activities.
Khan’s proposal for the “Flipped Classroom” will always be his greatest contribution to North American education reform. Once high school students discover the Khan Academy, Sal Khan becomes their virtual teacher and simply cannot be dismissed or ignored by sensible regular classroom teachers. It would be foolish to turn a blind eye to his teaching, so it becomes common sense to integrate his lessons into the program. Letting Sal Khan deliver the subject content as homework simply opens the door to more meaningful, deeper learning in class.
His other proposals for reform are more problematic. He’s an advocate of Mastery Learning which is fine for individual students but creates problems when applied across-the-board in classrooms in a deadening “lock-step” fashion. Allowing mixed age classes would be revolutionary because it would spell the end of the Jean Piaget-driven “age-appropriate curriculum” philosophy and ideology. It can and does work when it involves moving students forward to challenge them more academically, so that’s worth pursuing further.
His class size reform assigning three teachers to every 75 to 100 students would be exciting because it would open the door to new kinds of teaching and grouping combinations. Eliminating letter grades in elementary school strikes this commentator as a non-starter without a suitable alternative system of measuring student progress. He also advocates Year Round schooling. School should not “recess” for the whole Summer because of the “unlearning” that takes place over that two month period each year. Recognizing this reality and changing the system are two completely different things.
Will Salman Khan’s The One World Schoolhouse be the force that blasts the North American school system out of its comfort zone? How successful is the book in attempting to prove that The Khan Academy model is scalable? How long can schools of education and established educators hold out in resisting Sal Khan and online initiatives like Khan Academy? What’s stopping today’s schools from implementing the innovative “Flipped Classroom” model? And, what’s so threatening about challenging today’s high school students to prepare for class by viewing online instructional videos and to up-their-game in the classroom?